Some time after he joined the Marine Corps, Nathaniel Schultz filled out a questionnaire asking him why he had signed up.
"Self reliance and ability to protect my family," Schultz wrote. "Decided if I go to war I might as well be the best, most well-trained. To fight for righteous, individual freedom for myself and all children of God no matter where they were raised."
Family and friends gathered under mostly cloudy skies Saturday morning at Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon to honor a righteous fight cut short and the young man who waged it. There they were comforted by Pastor George Thomasson, who held up Schultz's goals as evidence of his focus, dedication and deep convictions.
"Nate's life was cut so short," Thomasson said. "We so appreciate deeply in our hearts the sacrifice he made."
Lance Cpl. Schultz was killed Aug. 21 during combat operations in Afghanistan's war-ravaged Helmand province. He was deployed to that country in June after training at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and was promoted to lance corporal three weeks before his death.
Dozens of people gathered outside Bell Shoals early Saturday to greet the hearse bearing his flag-draped coffin. Many waved flags. Others arrived by motorcycle as part of the Patriot Guard Riders, who show up at funerals for fallen troops around the country to show their appreciation.
Inside the church sanctuary, those who knew Schultz were encouraged by Capt. William Spencer, a chaplain from MacDill Air Force Base, to share stories about him.
"There's healing that takes place when we tell stories," he said. "In the stories, Nate is still with us."
A head-and-shoulders photograph of Schultz in dress uniform stared down from two video screens, his eyes serious and piercing. It's the same expression he wore in senior English class at Clearwater's Countryside High School, said his teacher, Sophie Kugeares.
She admitted to trying to talk her "golden student" out of enlisting after he graduated in 2009.
"He told me he would come back and see us in his dress blues," she said.
Grace Maguire, one of his five older sisters, said she nevertheless thought of him as her big brother. He looked out for her and they played Batman and Robin when they were children.
"He was my Marine," she said. "He will always be my Marine."
Jordan Freemon spent time with Schultz at the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranch, which works with troubled young people trying to get on the right path. He used the big-brother comparison, too, adding that Schultz tried to convince him to join the Marines.
"You'll be a hero and the girls will love you," he recalled from the sales pitch.
Sgt. Andrew Reeves, with the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines Regiment, said he remembers taking stock of Schultz and quickly liking the willingness to work and learn that he demonstrated. He could take it and give it out on the joking front but quickly established himself as having that intangible quality that makes a true Marine.
"Nate did us very proud," Reeves told those gathered. "He will always be a part of that tradition and family.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.